Schools are increasingly resisting attempts to make them enrol children who have been kicked out of other schools for violent behaviour.
Primary school principals say they are facing a "growing sea of violence" and the Ministry of Education (MoE) has told MPs it is having difficulty directing schools to enrol violent students.
"What we are finding is that some of the behaviour of some of the children that are excluded is so violent that it is difficult to even use secretary's power of direction to get a school to take some of these students," the ministry's deputy director of sector enablement and support, Katrina Casey, told a recent sitting of Parliament's Education and Workforce Select Committee.
Casey said it was a new trend that the ministry was trying to manage.
She later told RNZ that in the past two years it had used its legal power to compel schools to take 372 students, though it was not clear how many of those students had been excluded because of violence.
Casey said directions to enrol were made by the ministry's regional directors of education and the ministry did not collect national figures on the number of times schools challenged or refused those directions.
But principals spoken to by RNZ said some schools have defied Ministry directives to take students who have been kicked out of other schools.
Casey said it had not taken such schools to court because forcing the issue was unlikely to be in the child's best interests.
"We'll do everything we possibly can to avoid having to do that," she said.
"If a school is really, really set against having a student in the school, we need to step back and think about whether that environment would in fact be the best environment for the student," she said.
"So if you have a principal and teachers that are set against the child being in the school then it's quite possible that that child will not thrive or grow in that particular environment."
Principals were expected to find within ten days a new school for any students they excluded. If that failed, the Education Ministry was responsible for organising another education option - either another school or enrolment in some form of alternative education or in Te Kura (the correspondence school).
"In those circumstances we would first work to identify what would be an appropriate school environment for the student and then we start approaching principals," she said.
"Always what we're trying to do is to work with principals to ensure that they have the kind of support that they would need to take the child and really a direction is a legal route and it is the last thing that we want to do."
Casey said sometimes schools wanted full-time supervision for students and the ministry could not provide that.
She said sometimes the Ministry would help a student work through their problems before trying to enrol them in a new school.
Schools had a responsibility to take students who had been excluded from other schools, Casey said.
"We do expect that we don't end up in a situation where some schools end up with all of the excluded students and other schools end up with none," she said.
Principals Federation president Perry Rush said he knew schools that had resisted enrolling particular children and some that had refused the ministry's direction because they feared for the safety of staff and students.
"They've judged that under health and safety provisions it's really important that students and staff in their school communities are safe, that's a legal requirement and I think this is where the law is proving to be an ass," Rush said.
"Schools are required to enrol students. Schools are also required under the law to ensure that they are able to provide a safe and healthy environment where harm does not occur to students and staff so there really is a question of which law do schools follow."
Rush said schools were not shying away from difficult students, but were genuinely worried about inadequate support for those students and the likely impact on other children and on staff.
He said the students in question were not disabled, but came from difficult backgrounds where they had experienced trauma.
"That trauma presents with violence or abuse that makes having them in the school unsafe, makes students and teachers unsafe around them. That could be throwing furniture around the class, it could be damage to equipment, it can be physical harm to students and in some instance it can be verbal damage," he said.
"We're noticing a growing sea of violence in our schools. It is occurring more frequently and at a much younger age and so we are seeing this issue being confronted by principals and the ministry more frequently."
He told Morning Report his organisation was currently lobbying government to resource alternative educational arrangements and said a Napier-based Initiative, Managed Moves, offered a successful template that other schools across the country could use.
"It's a programme in which schools can move students within a school community to help meet the needs of violent students getting close to suspension. Also, there is a venue-based service which lets these damaged students come away from their home school for a period of time as a safety valve."
Tai Tokerau Principals Association president Pat Newman said he knew principals who had considered defying the ministry's directive to enrol a child.
"I'm very aware of schools who have talked about doing it out of frustration, out of coming to the end of their tether about trying to successfully enrol some of these children in their schools and not getting the assistance and the help that they need to do that," he said.
Newman said the children generally came from violent backgrounds.
"I'm not talking about special ed children, I'm talking about children who have been excluded because of violent behaviour, of assault, all of those sorts of things."
Power not used lightly
Casey said the ministry's power to direct a school to enrol a student was a last resort that was not used lightly.
"The reason for this is because it may not end up being in the best interests of the student to go to a school that does not want to take him or her. The action we take is always in the best interests of the student, and this may well mean that for some students Te Kura is the best form of schooling - rather than a physical school," she said.
Casey said the ministry was currently trying to find schools for 240 excluded students, including 62 who were excluded because of physical assaults on other students, 16 for physical assaults on staff, 64 for continual disobedience, 22 for drugs, and 41 for other harmful or dangerous behaviour.
She said in 2018, 1016 students were excluded and the ministry used it power of direction to re-enrol 203, including 16 who were enrolled back into the school that excluded them.
In 2019, there were 1160 excluded students and directed enrolment was used for 169, including 22 who returned to their original school.